One way to impress middle schoolers is to let them pet a chicken. Another may be to give them a magnified look at an ugly, squirming mosquito larva. Gulf Coast Academy sixth-graders had a chance to do both those things and more during a recent mosquito-themed field trip.
The day began at a wooded area where the students gathered around science teacher Melissa Raulerson, 25, with field activity program coordinator James Kaufmann, 30, nearby, to discuss mosquito eggs, larvae, pupae and adults. In groups they took cups and scooped water out of buckets that had been placed there earlier in search of mosquito larvae.
They didn't find any, but Raulerson wasn't worried. Help was on the way.
It arrived in Rene Snow, Hernando County mosquito control coordinator and surveillance tech, and field tech Tony Phillips. They escorted the students to the mosquito control facility.
Once there, they began with a short video: Let's Learn about Mosquitoes. The students paid rapt attention as they watched a female mosquito drill into the skin of a person's arm to suck the blood and saw another lay egg after egg into a raftlike structure. Snow discussed diseases and how to minimize mosquito numbers by monitoring standing water. "Don't grow your own mosquitoes," she said.
The students were taken outdoors to see the facility's vehicles: a six-wheeler for wooded areas, a four-wheeler for off-road drainage/retention areas and ditches, a johnboat for riverbanks and an airboat to treat island coastlines.
They saw a demonstration of spraying and learned that the poison is dosed for mosquitoes, as Phillips put it. "All the chemicals we use are not harmful to anything else," Snow said. She explained that a spray droplet has to directly hit a mosquito to kill it.
The students seemed to have more interest in the biological controls. Snow told them that bats, frogs and damsel flies eat mosquitoes, but that mosquito control uses gambusia. "They're very hardy little fish," she said. "They eat a lot of mosquitoes for us."
She showed the students a large tank of the fish. The mosquito-larvae gobblers are used in areas with standing water. "When we put fish out," Snow said, "we don't have to put chemicals out."
The students like this. Antonia Melucci, 12, said she appreciated the use of fish. "The other stuff is chemicals and that's not good," she said.
Ashley Ford, 12, agreed. "Because they're not putting any chemicals in the environment," she said.
Near the fish tank was the chicken coop. There are five coops in various locations throughout the county, but their job is not mosquito control. "They're for scientific purposes," Snow said. They are used to monitor disease, predominantly West Nile virus, eastern equine encephalitis and malaria.
These sentinel chickens can become infected, but they don't get sick. "Chickens are dead-end hosts," Phillips said.
After the students had a chance to pet one of the birds, Snow demonstrated the part of her job that she likes the least, calming the fowl so she can draw its blood. She held one by its feet, swinging it from side to side. "It doesn't hurt her," Snow said. If she didn't swing it, the chicken would object wildly to having its blood drawn from under its wing, but when she finished the easy swinging, the children saw a remarkably calm bird.
Once drawn, the blood is sent to a Tampa laboratory for testing. The sentinel chicken program is relatively new. It has been here for two years.
The students saw a lot as they made their rounds and shared some of their new knowledge. "I learned that they can carry yellow fever, malaria and West Nile," Ashley Foster said.
Matthew McKinney said, "I learned was DEET was, what mosquito fish are. I learned that it was called the proboscis, the thing they eat with."
After demonstrating that he knows the mosquito life cycle, Christopher Daniel, 12, said he liked petting the chicken, a first for him.
The final stop of the tour was in a room labeled with a diamond-shaped yellow sign that read "mosquito crossing." In there, Snow set up a live larva under a microscope with the image projected on a television screen. The students saw the wiggling creature that had eluded them earlier.